The Feb. 27 NHL trade deadline is now under two weeks away, and while there's been no movement yet, teams are quite busy outlining their options, gameplanning different scenarios.
For the Islanders, that means continuing to send signals -- for now -- to the locker room that they are in a playoff push, which is just as well: Despite the long odds, that only makes sense from a people management perspective. Don't pop the balloon for players asked to show up every day, train all summer, and commit their peak years to a team that has been bottom five the last four seasons.
But more deeply within the bowels of Nassau Coliseum, that means planning for next year. The far more realistic position on Feb. 27 is as a seller.
That's due to their place in the standing but also to having several pieces on the roster that are not part of the future. (In addition, P.A. Parenteau may or may not be part. Most likely, there is a happy middle between what he could fetch on the trade market and what he demands to re-sign now. The two pressure points in that discussion may force movement toward the middle.)
The majority of that "not the future" section is on the blueline and the bottom six: Pending UFA defensemen Steve Staios, Mike Mottau, Mark Eaton and Milan Jurcina will not all be retained, and possibly (hopefully?) none of them will.
At forward, aside from the Parenteau question, Marty Reasoner is signed through next season, but ex-Devils Brian Rolston and Jay Pandolfo should not return. They should sincerely consider whether Nino Niederreiter, unable to get non-rehab AHL time this year, might be best served by some Bridgeport time next season once he's freed from the shackles of the CHL-or-NHL arrangement.
Even in goal, the Islanders are riding Evgeni Nabokov, but both he and Al Montoya are pending free agents and the Isles will likely need at least one veteran in their crease next year.
There will be promotions from within but also the possibility of additions from without.
Of course, the problem with the hopes for additions from without is ... summer is unpredictable. The market that appears to exist now will progressively shrink on the way to July, and the Islanders remain a sub-premium (to use a euphemism from resort and car sales) destination for the free agent names who remain.
What If The UFA Market Disappears? What If They Won't Come?
Three weeks ago we had a nice FanPost outlining possible July targets on defense -- the free agents and trade targets who would replace today's Staios & Co. Since then, of course, Tim Gleason has re-signed in Carolina and today Johnny Boychuk has re-upped with the Bruins. Rats.
There is also the much-debated question of what it takes for the Islanders to land a really big fish on the open market. Scratch Ryan Suter's name off your dreams: If he's iffy about re-signing on a low-spending perennial playoff team in Nashville, he's not going to leave that comfort for a low-spending team that hasn't seen the playoffs since 2007.
But even the less glamorous targets, the question of how much overpayment is required -- and whether it's smart still persists. Fans rightly debate whether it's just GM and agent talk or something more, but here is a familiar tale from a reporter who doesn't tend to parrot company lines without stating them as such. Elliotte Friedman's most recent 30 Thoughts for CBC, talking about when clubs get reputations (such as Winnipeg and the soap opera surrounding Evander Kane at times this year)
Players talk. They ask each other what it's like to live in each city. The great, the good, the bad and the ugly. Make no mistake, this is ugly. You can see Claude Noel's exasperation as he's forced to defend his best scorer.
During the preseason, Nashville players marveled at the enthusiasm of Jets fans during an exhibition game. Now, the question is: "What's going on up there?"
You never want to give players a reason to say "No" to your city. Ask Edmonton, which suffered from the reaction to Chris Pronger's trade request. Ask Montreal, which has all sorts of problems attracting players (especially French ones) because of the white-hot scrutiny on the team. Think Randy Cunneyworth's treatment made the city a more desirable place to play?
Ask the Islanders, who basically wrote blank cheques to Dan Hamhuis, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek two summers ago, only to have all three take less money elsewhere. It's hard to shake that label once you get it.
We do not know which players have chosen what reasons to reject which cities. We do know there are patterns with teams that consistently make offers and continue to strike out. (It's said that was one reason Montreal bit the bullet and took Scott Gomez's contract via trade. Again, it's all debatable and there's lots of hearsay. But where there's smoke, there may at least be some kindling.)
That's why the time is nearing -- if it's not quite this spring, then this summer -- to at least explore the market for prospect swaps and reallocation from their forward prospect depth to some defensemen ready to contribute now.
Right now, before trade deadline decisions are consummated, the Islanders can afford to continue their ostensible playoff push for the players who are going to be here year after year or might be swayed to stay. But they also need to think about next year. For the blueline, that means figuring out what they have -- in Aaron Ness, in Wishart -- and determining what they need. (That's why so many fans clamor for a promotion, and actual deployment, of players like Wishart, who is scratched for tonight's game.) To say nothing of what their chances are for adding the solutions to what they need, once identified.
On the flipside, it's impossible to say nor quantify what the excitement of a player like John Tavares can do for goodwill and for changing perceptions. Players like him repeatedly communicate what they like about the franchise and why they've committed long term.
Eight points and several teams out, the playoff chase can continue for now. But the time is near for promotions and for finding out how ready some young prospects are for next year. You might think this is crazy, but -- imagine this -- the Islanders might even discover those kids are better than the veterans they're using now.